Behind her closed door she stood alone.
I have indeed let my reading of Dorothy Richardson’s great series of books, “Pilgrimage”, slip behind a little and I need to catch up with June’s book (“Revolving Lights”), July’s book (“The Trap”) and also that for the current month (“Oberland”). I have finally found the time and space to read them, so I thought I would do a composite type of post, covering them all!
“Revolving Lights” opens with a long stream-of-consciousness chapter with Miriam mixing with Mr. Leyton’s female cousins, debating with herself deeply about her relationship with Michael Shatov. She’s acutely conscious of the differences of attitude between men and women, and frustrated by his inability to understand the problems they would face if they married. Despite meeting a Russian couple, the Lintoffs, who have a ‘mixed marriage’, Miriam is still unconvinced and makes the break with Michael – her need to be alone is one of the strongest things in her psyche. There is a weight lifted from her by this break, but she’s exhausted and goes to spend a month with the Wilsons in the country. Here, she mixes with literary types, particularly Edna Prout, and grows closer to Hypo – interestingly enough, she seems to be developing a writing career of sorts, writing reviews. The book ends on a further note of change, with her dentist boss Mr. Hancock going it alone and taking Miriam with him.
“The Trap” heralds more changes, as it opens with Miriam moving to new lodgings, sharing with a Miss Holland. In the same area of London, it appears, the rooms are not particularly inspiring and involve actually sharing a bedroom, with a curtain down the middle – not something I’d expect Miriam to be particularly keen on, as she likes her own space, but she appears cheerful enough about it. It’s not clear straight away why she’s made the move, though a later sentence would suggest for reasons of economy – but then there is always much that isn’t clear with Richardson. So Miriam settles in, attend Lycurgan meetings and dances, socialises with Miss Holland and Dr. Densley (is he a suitor as well as her doctor?), copes with exhaustion and takes great joy in being a member of a women’s club. Michael Shatov makes fleeting appearances, as does the poet Yeats (who apparently lives just over the road!) and all the while Miriam continues her interior dialogue with herself. Densley is of the opinion that her exhaustion could be cured by marriage and settling down, which Miriam dismisses. However, there is a sense that she’s becoming set in her ways and certainly her outlook is often inflexible. Inevitably, there’s a falling out with Miss Holland and the book ends with the hint that Miriam may be moving on again.
“Oberland” brings a change of scene as it opens with Miriam setting off on for a holiday in Switzerland, a trip that had been mentioned in passing while she was at the Wilsons’ as her ideal visit. And here we see the real strength of Richardson’s writing as she captures brilliantly the feeling of travelling and the effect of the landscape on Miriam as she arrives in Oberland. Switzerland comes vividly arrive and Miriam obvious loves the place; she toboggans and walks in the mountains; makes tentative friends with other residents; and spends quite a lot of time attracting men! In fact, she’s something of a flirt, drawn to a brooding Italian whose views are very much opposite to hers, and also to a young American whose free and easy New World manners are more in touch with her personality. However, it does seem as if she’s toying with them a little, and there are hints of Hypo in back in London “waiting for her decision” – on what we don’t know, but presumably it will be a love affair of some sort.
Short enough to be classed as a novella, “Oberland” was probably the easiest of these three books to read – shorter chapter, shorter paragraphs, less inner musings and more outward looking. We still experience Miriam’s way of thinking and her view of the world, but in a form that’s easier for the reader to assimilate.
So, having read three Pilgrimage novels in quick succession, I’ve had a concentrated dose of Miriam and I have to say that it did cross my mind that she’s a person who seriously overthinks things! Accepting that we all have random thought processes, constantly picking up subtleties around us and analysing motives and the like, Miriam takes this to an extreme degree, so much so that I did wonder how much it was interfering with her life. However, putting this aside, there are great riches to be found in the books.
For a start, some passages are quite beautiful, and in particular Richardson vividly brings alive the summer stay at the Wilsons. The landscape and the garden and the sleeping out on a summer night are wonderfully painted scenes, with Miriam contemplating the large things of life. And as always, Miriam/Richardson celebrates London and the life there in some wonderful sequences – Miriam’s refuge is often the streets of the capital, where she is at home and very much at one with herself. Switzerland too had a strong presence and Miriam always responds to landscape.
Bizarrely, in places Richardson starts to switch from the third person to the first person, and towards the end of “The Trap” a whole sequence is done in first person – which rather unsettles the reader. Another oddity is her constant way of dropping important bombshells into the narrative as passing comments; I’m thinking of one particular huge life-changing event in “The Trap” which happens so much in metaphorical parenthesis that you might actually miss it… There are also the ongoing frustrations of references to past events we know nothing about – for example, as Liz pointed out, the mention of Miriam having spent time with cousins in Cambridge is the first we hear of it, and this kind of sudden detail can be disconcerting.
On a slightly negative point, I found the constant emphasis on race in the first of these three books a little frustrating. I suppose that nowadays we’re used to people of all races and faiths and creeds marrying without a second thought, but Richardson seems to define, and often condemn, people, particularly ones of Jewish origin, because of that heritage. Granted that it’s a way of life and belief that is alien to her, nevertheless I felt slightly uncomfortable with her categorisations here. And in “Oberland” in particular, her consciousness of class differences comes to the fore. I ended up perceiving a real danger that Miriam’s outlook and character can be too rigid – she obviously is looking for a life companion of some kind, or else why would she spend so much time pursuing the various menfolk, but any relationship has to completely on her terms. There is no room for any kind of compromise in her outlook and that could well have a detrimental effect on her life long-term.
So a fascinating series of three books – and I’m keen to see where Miriam’s journey takes her next, as “The Trap” ended on a note of ambiguity as far as her future sharing digs with Miss Holland is concerned. I’m glad I used All Virago/All August to catch up, and as the final four volumes are really quite short, hopefully I’ll have no problem completing this challenge…
(Liz’s review of “Oberland” is here and you can find the rest of her reviews on her blog too)